Corporal Elijah Toon from Coleorton was awarded the Military Medal (second only to the Victoria Cross) for his services to fellow prisoners in the Wittenberg camp during the first World War. He nursed many sick prisoners during a cholera outbreak when they received no help from their captors. Corporal Toon lived with his wife and family in Coleorton and worked at the Whitwick Colliery before the war. Corporal Toon was subsequently promoted to sergeant.
The following account was taken from an article in the Coalville Times of June 9th 1916 under the heading "Coleorton Soldier Honoured":
There is a much longer and more interesting article from the Coalville times of 4.2.1916 with more detail of conditions in the camp. Elijah Tone was promoted to Sergeant and awarded the military medal. Elijah Toon and Harry Toon (killed in action) both appear on the Coleorton WW1 Roll of Honour on our website, which records the men of Coleorton who fought in the first world war including those killed in action and those who survived.
Here is the transcribed copy of the arrticle in the Coalville Times 4 February 1916:
After being fourteen months a prisoner in Germany, during which he had some terrible experiences, Corporal Elijah Toon, No. 1466, of the Leicestershire Imperial Yeomanry, recently arrived in England, and is now spending a well-deserved furlough with his wife and four children in their little cottage near the brook at Coleorton. In the course of an interview with a representative of this paper, Toon told an interesting and thrilling narrative of how he had fared since he fell into the hands of the enemy. It may be explained at the outset that prior to the memorable August 4th, 1914, Toon was working as a deputy under Mr W. Price in the Whitwick new pit. He had then had about seven years' experience in the Leicestershire Yeomanry, having served as orderly to Major Burkitt, of Whitwick, during practically the whole of that time, and as the Yeomanry were mobilised immediately after the outbreak of war, he soon found himself on active service.
It was on November 1st that the Yeomanry, after various operations in several parts of this country, left for France, and ten days later, on November 11th, they took part in their first big battle. It was in the early hours of November 14th, about one o'clock in the morning, that Toon was taken a prisoner. He was riding a bicycle, carrying despatches, and being in a strange locality, and in the dark, missed his way. In the gloom, he noticed two outposts, but rode on, not knowing whether they were friends or foes. Then he came upon an obstruction across the road - a house which had been demolished by gunfire - and realising that he was on the wrong track, decided to return to the sentries, and enquire the way.
Immediately he reached them, he was covered by their rifles, and soon found that he was close to the German trenches, and that the sentries were German soldiers. They called an officer, but as shells were falling round, he soon retired to the safety of the trenches again and Toon was escorted to a place just outside Ypres. There three more prisoners of the Bedfordshire Regiment joined him and they remained there till the afternoon when they were taken to Wervick. Here they assisted with the German wounded in a hospital, and in burying the dead, and were thus occupied for four days. They slept on straw in a cathedral, but they complained of the vermin in the straw, and asked to be moved.
They then were sent to Lille, there joining other prisoners, both civilians and military. They were in a Lille military prison for three days, thence being conveyed to Geisson. In reaching the latter place they were travelling for 36 hours in a cattle truck. There were 27 of them packed into one truck which was without a particle of straw, and no sanitary conveniences whatever, and during the whole 36 hours they were each supplied with one slice of bread, and a basin of soup. At one of the stopping-places they were to have been supplied with coffee, but to keep up their spirits the men were singing, and for this they were made to go without coffee.
After four days at Geisson, they proceeded to Wittenberg, a place, said Toon, famous for its association with Martin Luther. The latter, by-the-way, was at one time professor of philosophy in the University of Wittenberg. It was in the camp at this place that Toon found that he was destined to stay in captivity for nearly 14 months. On entering the camp they were all searched, and tobacco, matches, knives, and all such things were taken from them. "We were shamefully ill-used," said the soldier, "We were knocked about and spat upon. We thought we were going to be eaten." Soup was the chief article of food. "The next morning," said Toon, continuing his narrative, "I started to attend the English wounded. There were no English doctors, and these men had not had their wounds attended to for weeks. There were three Russian and two French doctors attending to their wounded in other parts of the camp. When our fellows were taken ill we had to do the best we could for them until a permanent hospital was built. Early in December cholera broke out, and another corporal and myself were placed in charge of the suffering Englishmen. There were between 20 and 30 all in need of medical attention."
Toon went on to explain that having acted for seven years as doctor's orderly, he had some knowledge of medical treatment, and in four days and nights he made as many as 58 injections on patients. In the worst cases morphia had to be used. In connection with this work, he was complimented by a German doctor who spoke good English. Subsequently typhus also broke out in the camp and Toon, who was much over-worked and under-nourished, fell a victim to the disease. He had been on duty from 7 in the morning till 9 at night, and in addition he had to take a turn on night duty, only getting one full night's rest in four. Night duty was worked in relays - 9 to 12, 12 to 3, 3 to 6 and 6 till 9, and the one who was on the last three hours had to continue through the day until 9 in the evening.
Questioned as to the meals, the soldier said they had coffee in the morning and soup for dinner and tea. The three meals were all served in seven hours -– between 10 and 5 - and for 17 hours they had nothing. He complained to the French doctor about the insufficient nourishment, but he said he could do nothing, and he gave them ten marks cash to purchase a few extras. That doctor, added Toon, died of typhus. Before he himself had recovered, six English doctors arrived, and three of these also contracted the disease and died. One of them, he said, was Major Fry, a brother of Mr C. B. Fry, the famous cricketer.
When he (Toon) was recovering, cholera was still raging in the camp, and before he was well again, he had to get up, and make injections in the patients. After that he was placed in charge of the English surgical ward containing twenty patients. There were only two beds, other patients occupying mattresses on the floor. The patients were in a fearful state said Toon, and he had to remove vermin from them to make them presentable to the doctor. One small piece of soap among twenty patients had to last three days. They had to wash and pass the soap along. It was a difficult matter for him to get bandages and medicines. The majority of the prisoners in the camp were Russians, and it was only through the kindness of one of the Russian doctors that he got a few supplies from their store.
When the cholera broke out the Germans ran away and left them to themselves for eight months, none coming near, except the patrols outside the camp. A lot of men have now been withdrawn from the camp, and are engaged on construction work, and in the cultivation of land, also in factories. Some are also working in the mines, but they drew the line at working on munitions, a flat refusal being the answer to such a proposal.
Replying to a question as to whether parcels and letters sent to the prisoners from England were reaching them safely, Toon said that at first the parcels were very much battered, and when the American ambassador came round, they complained to him of this, and also of their general treatment. Things improved somewhat afterwards. "The reports you may have seen in the papers," said Toon, "about ferocious dogs being sent into the camp and attacking the prisoners were quite correct. There were also severe forms of punishment for breaking various rules, such as tieing one to a post for two hours at a time, or confinement in cells on bread and water. One of the rules was 'No smoking' and there was punishment for the violation of this."
During the last three months at the camp, they seemed to have got into a more civilised state. They were allowed to write two letters and three postcards a month, but at first they were not allowed to write at all for fear of spreading disease. Concluding, Toon said he could not describe all they had gone through. Were he to attempt it, one would scarcely believe him. He would not have thought himself capable of going through it, but one never knew what he could do until put to the test. He assured the writer that British prisoners were now practically living on the food sent from England. The German food was such vile stuff that they could not "stomach it." He received several welcome parcels while there from ladies in Leicester, from the officials of the Whitwick Colliery, from relatives at Coalville and Coleorton, and from Miss Hosking, daughter of the Vicar of Coalville, and to all these he desired to express his sincere thanks. For the sake of the unfortunate prisoners still in Germany, he urged that kind friends should keep on sending these gifts of food which were so greatly appreciated. The men were allowed certain forms or recreation, but the great thing which kept up their spirits, he said, was the sure and certain hope of being relieved some day when the Allies shall make a triumphal entry into the land of their ruthless foe. "Roll on that day," is the all absorbing thought and wish of the prisoners.
The last question to the gallant soldier was as to how he succeeded in getting away. Toon replied that it was on account of his ambulance knowledge, and his assurance that he was attached to the R.A.M.C., another man getting away with him on the same grounds. They left camp on December 28th and were escorted to Aachen, being detained there for over a week before being allowed to cross the frontier. The British War Office was not aware of their coming, and no arrangements were made for them, as a result of which they had to pay their fares to Flushing. Meanwhile they had wired to the British Government's representative at Flushing and after reaching there all was plain sailing. They landed in England on January 6th and after spending several days at Aldershot, proceeded home.
Corporal Toon, it may be added, is a Coalville man, born in the Newmarket there, but from 12 months old he lived at Coleorton, being brought up by his uncle, Mr. Jno. Hall, an agricultural labourer. He intends re-joining his regiment in a few weeks' time. Before leaving him, he asked the writer to mention one other thing. He said that while inspections were not made of the housing conditions of the out workers, which he was sure would stand considerable improvement. He added that the Germans were still of the impression that they were winning. The people were not allowed to get hold of any information to the contrary, and while their hatred of the English was still pronounced, it was significant that Corporal Toon should have heard such expressions from German officers and others that the British possess a great Navy. Working in unison, said they, the German army and the British Navy could command the peace of the world. But that seems a remote possibility.
Article by Terry Ward
In the 1880s a Henry Toon had a brickworks in Lower Brand, Griffydam. Bricks from there were used to build a house in Elder Lane. See Griffydam History website >>
How war and conflict over the ages affected Coleorton and it's residents Read >>